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Program 0120
May 15, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

Henryk Broder: They couldn’t say grüne card, they had to say green card. It had to have this American sound, you know, to make a trick, and nice and fashionable. So what do they do? They give these green cards for three or five years. And then they realize all of sudden, the Indians don’t want to come.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Germany’s immigration debate. And human rights heroes.

KERRY KENNEDY CUOMO: They believe in the capacity of one person to make a difference. They know it because they are doing it, and they’ve seen it work.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Two things may come as a surprise in today’s Germany. First, despite a non-German population of almost 9 percent, there’s still no immigration law, only laws about foreigners. Even the grandchildren of guest workers invited from southern Europe in the 1960s are still referred to as Auslanders, or “outsider.” Second, even though Germany is considered one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, it is starving for computer specialists.

MCHUGH: By some estimates 200,000 could be snapped up immediately and another 100,000 will be needed in the next few years. In a country that for decades declared it would never open its borders, the tone of the immigration debate is shifting from one of charged emotions to cool-headed demographics. But with a sharp rise in right-wing xenophobic crimes, many say Germany needs a crash course in diversity training if it’s going to attract foreign professionals it desperately needs. Common Ground Correspondent Alexa Dvorson reports.

[a quick succession of various ethnic and international music styles and radio programs]

ALEXA DVORSON: To listen to this Berlin radio station, whose name is German shorthand for “multicultural,” and whose motto is “The whole world at the end of the dial,” you’d think immigration and diversity were a fact of everyday life here.

[more music from the international radio station]

DVORSON: Foreign musicians and activists are frequent studio guests on Radio Multi-Kulti. When the world music discs start spinning, coverage of immigration issues abound, from changes in citizenship laws to combating neo-Nazi violence. But if this station has a loyal audience, it’s certainly not mainstream. Opinion polls repeatedly show a majority of Germans not only oppose passage of an immigration law, they think there are too many foreigners in their country already. Now, because of Germany’s continually low birth rate and its urgent need for computer specialists, the immigration issue is on the front burner whether they like it or not.

RAINER MÜNZ: We need a concept, not only how many people should come to this country, but also who.

DVORSON: Sociology Professor Rainer Münz has been studying decades of migration and population trends in Europe. In simple terms, Germany’s population will shrink by 350,000 per year. That means with more deaths than births, at least a few hundred thousand immigrants will be needed each year just to keep the social system afloat. Professor Münz is a member of a recently formed immigration commission, whose first task is to determine criteria for newcomers.

MÜNZ: This could include skills, qualifications, age, willingness to learn German, and to integrate into Germany society. Because what this country urgently needs is not a wave of guest workers, but true immigrants that will become eventually part of civil society of this country. So the second task is to discuss the relation between regular immigration and immigration for humanitarian reasons-I am pointing to asylum, I am pointing to temporary protection. And the third task is probably the most difficult; it is to communicate this to a larger public that has to agree.

[sounds of a busy street market]

DVORSON: Ayse Durana certainly agrees. Now a grandmother, she was one of those guest workers who came from eastern Turkey more than 25 years ago. Today she still works as a cleaning woman for city hall. “Without a profession, what else to do?,” she says in broken German. But she’s happy with her life here and proud of her three grown children. She loves shopping at this open-air market in Cologne, where good-humored Germans, Greeks, Turks, Indians, and Italians work side by side, occasionally calling out the prices of bananas and bell peppers in each others’ languages.

[sounds of a busy street market]

DVORSON: Ayse’s all in favor of opening the borders to formal immigration. “Of course Germany should invite more migrants,” she says. “All people are brothers anyway. Let people come from other countries. The more of a mix here the better.”

But try selling that to the mainstream. With a finger on the public pulse, and an eye on upcoming elections, the coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens has stalled on passing an immigration law since the day they came to power in 1998, even though they campaigned for one during their long years in the opposition. So why put it off now when it’s so clearly urgent? Cornelia Sonntag-Wolgast, the State Secretary for the Interior Ministry, admits to a lack of political will, because it’s just too risky right now.

Cornelia Sonntag-Wolgast: When we were on the opposition, to be honest, we said always, “Deutschland ist ein ausland.” Germany is a state with immigration and where immigration happens and where immigration will happen in the future, too. But people are still a little bit afraid. We cannot only push, push an issue if we don’t have the majority with us.

DVORSON: If it were up to the new Chairwoman of the Green Party, Claudia Roth, there would be an immigration law tomorrow. She’s tired of her coalition partners tip-toeing around the issue.

CLAUDIA ROTH: One should explain to the German public how important migrants are for Germany. Imagine from one day to the other, all the Turks would take their money from the German banks and would leave the country. Germany would totally collapse. Would totally collapse-it would be bankrupt. So I think one should not be so defensive, so afraid. Because if you are afraid of this, if you give the impression “We are not sure that this is the right way,” you give a big, big part of the discussion to those who are really against the reality in Germany.

[sound of a laser printer]

DVORSON: As critics love to point out, Germany often has a hard time coming to grips with reality. Just as it resisted admitting for decades that it was already a nation with immigrants, it dozed through the first several years of the information age in a kind of sleep resistance to the new economy. By the time it woke up and smelled the cyber-coffee, the global marketplace was already on refills, and a click of the mouse revealed a drastic shortage of computer specialists here. To bypass a parliamentary drama, Chancellor Roth took a shortcut last summer and issued Germany’s first ever green cards for IT professionals-many from India-so they could get here pronto as long as they leave again in three to five years’ time. “Nice try,” says Der Spiegel correspondent Henryk Broder, “but even with a non-Germany name, green cards alone don’t cut it.

Henryk Broder: They couldn’t say grüne card, they had to say green card. It had to have this American sound, you know, to make a trick, and nice and fashionable. So what do they do? They give these green cards for three or five years. And then they realize all of sudden, the Indians don’t want to come.

DVORSON: Of an anticipated 10,000 applications, which is a drop in the bucket in terms of Germany’s needs, only 5,500 green cards have been issued in six months. Skeptics aren’t surprised. Who wants to come for just a few years, when foreign computer techs can get permanent residence in countries such as the US or Canada, not to mention bigger salaries. In addition, word spread fast that Germany often seems friendlier to dogs than to children and foreigners.

[sounds of a street protest]

DVORSON: Then there are those disenchanted youth in their combat boots and bomber jackets, better known as neo-Nazis, who have scared many would-be green card holders away. It’s enough to make CEOs ask nervously, “What if we had an immigration law and nobody came?” As if that weren’t enough, other sectors have joined the green card chorus, saying “What about us?” Hotels, agriculture, and food service are just a few of the other industries crying out for more employees. But Christoph Kannengieber, of the Federation of Germany Employers, thinks green cards should only be a temporary solution. As a member of the immigration commission, he’s keeping mum about the group’s formal recommendations to the government, due in July. He doesn’t mind the wait. Kannengieber would rather see a good immigration law, with a broad consensus, than a quickly passed law that ruffles too many feathers.

CHRISTOPH KANNENGIEBER: We have to start making an immigration policy which is part of our economic policy. I don’t think that we need 20 green cards for 20 sectors, but an overall concept for high-qualified people to come in Germany. Not only in IT, but in biotechnologies or in other innovative sectors of our economy.

[sound of music with an Indian style]

DVORSON: This level-headed approach is a far cry from last year’s toxic rhetoric that made regular headlines. The most infamous example was the catchy racist slogan, “Kinder Statt Inder,” which literally means “children, not Indians.” It was a coded buzz phrase implying Germans should have more children and train those already in school rather than permit immigration to recruit foreign computer professionals from countries like India. The conservative politician who ran on this slogan lost, but not before insulting many in the multicultural community. An Indian-born engineer, we’ll call him “Maya,” was among those who found the slogan offensive, but highly indicative of what needs to be done.

MAYA: I sort of felt sad that this was their perception. It is true that their educational system is really lagging behind and their problems are today. How can you solve your problems today but yet keep a long-term vision in mind? You’re not gonna be able to change the educational system tomorrow and find IT specialists tomorrow. I mean, people have to understand how that works. And I think government really needs to educate the people on how far behind they are compared to America, how far behind they are compared to other countries who are well ahead of the game in information technology. And when they look at that, what is the short-term solution is to find people, get them in here, simultaneously get your people trained and change your education system.

DVORSON: A mother of two children, Maya sits on the diversity council of a large American company that transferred her and her husband here two years ago. She has another piece of practical advice to make Germany more attractive to foreign professionals.

MAYA: They need to make life a bit more family friendly here, you know. Life is great for young, unattached single people. You need to set up an infrastructure for the children. They need to allow for that. And that’s why their birth rate is dropping. It’s the immigrants whose birth rate is rising and not the Germans.

[sound of music with an Indian style]

DVORSON: Even those vehemently promoting an immigration law realize it can’t be the only solution to Germany’s declining birth rate. But in addition to making this country more family friendly, Germany could go a long way to become more foreigner friendly. If the government succeeds in introducing an immigration law before the next elections the legal hurdles may seem like a piece of kuchen, compared to the social ones. Looking at generations of anti-foreigner sentiments fueled by stale stereotypes, Dr. Jocelyn Siegel, an American cross-cultural and clinical psychologist, says German society’s homework assignment is clear.

JOSYLAN SEGAL: People need to open up! They really need to suspend whatever they were taught about anybody else and open up. That’s my big wish. It’s not even a wish, that’s, it’s, that’s what needs to happen. So a lot of my work is focusing on how to, in a nonthreatening way, give people the permission to open up and to look at their assumptions about the other. That’s the work. And if they don’t open up, it doesn’t matter how many people come here, there’s still going to be the same xenophobic behaviors that have been going on before they even came here. Just because you have more of them doesn’t mean that things will go away.

[sound of someone singing an upbeat song in a German-sounding-language]

DVORSON: In her trademark salad language of German and English, known as “Dinglish,” New York cabaret singer Gayle Tufts performs this song to sell-out audiences in Berlin. A resident of Germany for over a decade, she pokes fun at her own assimilation. “Help, I’ve become too German. Every day I’m more like you,” she sings. It’s a fine lament for any foreigner, though the real issue is to what extent true integration is possible.

[Tufts continues to sing in the background]

DVORSON: Now that the German immigration commission is contemplating which models it might borrow from classic immigrant countries, Canada’s point system ranks high on the probability list. In the meantime, Germany could do well to issue green cards for more trainers in intercultural communication.

[Tufts continues to sing in the background]

DVORSON: I’m Alexa Dvorson, in Berlin.

[Tufts continues to sing in the background]

MCHUGH: Human rights heroes, next, on Common Ground.

KERRY KENNEDY CUOMO: You always have to operate on the faith that what you’re doing might make a difference and therefore is worth doing.

PORTER: Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, and the Dalai Lama, are just a few of the world’s well-known human rights activists.

MCHUGH: But there are countless more across the globe who campaign for human rights each and every day, anonymously and with little fanfare. High profile or not, author Kerry Kennedy Cuomo believes all are heroes. Kennedy Cuomo, a human rights champion in her own right, profiles several of these heroes in her book, Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. I recently spoke with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo about her book, her motivations, and her human rights heroes.

KERRY KENNEDY CUOMO: In 1981, as a sophomore in college I took an internship at Amnesty International in Washington, DC And my assignment was to look at abuses committed by US immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador. And I was absolutely horrified to find what our government was doing. We were treating the most destitute people with tremendous disdain. I found abuses including denial of right to counsel, coercion to sign voluntary departure forms, which means taking people who only speak Spanish and who are illiterate and basically forcing them into signing legal papers saying “I know my rights and I’m voluntarily returning to my country of origin.” We were putting people in prison, we were separating women from their children. There was physical abuse, there was sexual abuse, there was terrible, terrible conditions in the prison. And I was horrified by it.

At the same time, I realized that I was lucky and blessed to be born in a country which is born of revolution, where our institutions are capable of change because of citizen activism. And I started working with people around the world who, like me, were trying to change their governments. But unlike me, they were being imprisoned or tortured or threatened with death for their work. They were anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, and refuseniks in Russia, and Solidarity members in Poland, and the mothers of the disappeared in El Salvador. And I was so moved by their courage and by their extraordinary patriotism, their determination to make their countries better, and their capacity to actually create change under impossible circumstances, that it changed my life. And I decided to devote myself to protecting human rights, and that’s what I’ve done for the last 20 years.

MCHUGH: And you recently penned a book.

KENNEDY CUOMO: I wrote Speak Truth To Power, and that is really a tribute to the people around the world who work on human rights. It’s a book about the quality of courage. And I interviewed people, some well known-Vaclav Havel, Elie Wiesel, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu. But most of the people in the book are grassroots human rights defenders, not well known beyond the boundaries of their countries.

I asked them things like “What’s your first memory of injustice?” and “How did you react to it?” “How do you confront evil?” “How do you confront a person when you know that the chance of success is so remote and the personal consequences are so grave that you’ll probably be imprisoned, that you’ll probably be tortured in prison, that they may seek revenge on your family?” “How do you deal with that?” And, “What’s your dream for the future?”

And the answers were extraordinary, you know. It’s Elie Wiesel saying “My dream for the future is that your children don’t have my past.” Or Archbishop Tutu saying “We don’t have a God who says ‘Gotcha!’ We have a God who lifts us up and dusts us off and tells us to try it again.” Or this guy called the Abubacar Sultan from Mozambique, who works with child soldiers and he tries to emancipate them from their lives on the front lines. And he spent years and years doing this and he missed seeing his own children grow up. And I asked him about that, about the pain of leaving his kids and not having those experiences. And he said, “You know, it was so difficult, but I looked around me and I saw that the people in my part of the country were so privileged compared to those.” And he said, “You know, when you see that you have to react. You’ve got to take a stand and you’ve got to be involved.” He said, “It’s kind of like a gift that you have inside yourself.” And I think all these people have found that gift inside themselves and share it and they find a great deal of sustenance from that. And I think that people who read the book or log on to Web site or see the videotape will also be able to find that gift inside themselves.

MCHUGH: In all you profiled 51 people. And as you mentioned some are famous, others are not. I’m really intrigued by Anonymous.

KENNEDY CUOMO: Anonymous graces the cover of the book. This is a person who is in a black garb with-and you can’t tell they’re, who they are or what their sex is or anything about them-and they’re standing in the Sahara Desert and they have a noose around their neck, but they’re standing straight and strong. And that in a way is symbolic of all the human rights defenders who struggle anonymously around the world, who are unable to, who we never know their names or their, or where they’re working or what they’re trying to do. And yet they’ve always got this kind of symbolic noose-or a real noose around their neck. And still they stand strong. This person is a real person. There’s somebody-I say “they” ‘cause I can’t identify them-live in Sudan and work on human rights. And it is so dangerous to work on human rights in Sudan that their life would be threatened in a very direct way if their identity were known. And so we took this photograph and I did an interview with them in which they speak very openly about their life with-I hope, without identifying themselves so much that the government could find them.

MCHUGH: Is there a common theme that all of these people have?

KENNEDY CUOMO: There are a few, I think. One is the sense of the gift inside themselves, which I was speaking about. Another is a sense of fulfillment. You know, Marian Wright Edelman [sic] put this very well. She said-she is the first African-American woman to pass the bar in Mississippi, which she did in the 1960s, and she went there to represent civil rights leaders-and she said “I was blessed at a very young age to find something that was a cause that was so important I was willing to die for it. And therefore I’ve found something so important to me I’m willing to give my life to it. And that’s given me direction and a sense of fulfillment and depth.” And I think all of the people in the book have found a cause they’re willing to give their life for and therefore something they’re willing to devote their lives to, and that’s given them then, that fulfillment.

There is a common sense of spirituality, of great depth, of a sense of personal contentment. But they are constantly challenging the status quo, so when you’re with them you sense, you have this sense of peace about them. But they never let you off the hook. They’re always trying to push you further. What can you do? How can you help? You know, they’re getting you off that chair and making you move. So it’s a very interesting feeling, a really wonderful feeling about the possibility of making change.

I think there’s also, in common they believe in the capacity of one person to make a difference. They know it because they are doing it, and they’ve seen it work under extraordinary circumstances, impossible odds.

There is also a common-interestingly-sense of humor. And I found myself in listening to the tapes that I made in my interviews, laughing the whole time. And you would think-human rights, they’re talking about murder, they’re talking about torture, they’re talking about the most awful things. But they just are so funny as a whole. And I actually asked Vaclav Havel about that, who as you know is a tremendous absurdist playwright. And he talked about how his sense of humor helped him keep his sanity. And Wei Jingsheng also spoke about how it kept his sanity when he was imprisoned in China for so many years.

MCHUGH: Of all the people that you’ve profiled, which one touched you the most, personally?

KENNEDY CUOMO: Oh, I can’t answer that! I have to say that after every single interview in that book I walked away feeling a tremendous sense of hope for the world and that I had heard some wisdom, some piece of wisdom that I didn’t have before. And I think that’s reflected on every single page of this book. They all made a tremendous difference to me. I think one of the people who was really extraordinary-all of them are extraordinary-but one person is Juliana Dogbadzi, who was a sexual slave in Ghana. Her parents put her in slavery at the age of seven, and she was in a harem basically with about a hundred other women and she was the only one to escape. And she escaped at the age of 23 and went to the capital of Ghana-Accra. And she learned a trade, she learned how to sew. And she also then went to all the legislators in Ghana, in Accra. And she told her story again and again and again. Again and again reentering that torture chamber, telling her story, and saying “Please, we have to stop. We need a ban on this practice.” And within 12 months of her release she had gotten a ban on the practice of sexual slavery of women for the first time in the history of Ghana. That was in 1998.

But I think that her story is so important because we so often think of all the excuses about why we can’t make a difference. “I haven’t had the education.” Well, here’s somebody who had never walked into a schoolroom. “I don’t have the money.” She didn’t have a penny. “I don’t know how the system works.” “They’re smarter than me.” “I vote for them to take care of those problems.” “I’m too busy with my family” or “with my job,” or whatever it is. And I think what she says is, number one, one person can make a difference. And number two, we’ve got to stop thinking about why we can’t and we have to start thinking about the people who need us to advocate on their behalf. And that for me in some ways is a lot of the point of this book.

MCHUGH: I think a lot of people feel that one person alone can’t make a difference. So what advice would you give to people who may want to make a difference but aren’t quite sure how?

KENNEDY CUOMO: Well, first I would say go the Web site, because on the Web site we not only profile each of the people from the book, but we also have very specific action items that people can take. And they work. One was, I talked about Freedom Neruda. And he said, “These are the five things I need in order to do my work better.” And one of the things he said he needed was a laptop computer, and somebody read it and sent him a laptop. And that totally transformed his life. Another person, Wangari Maathai, was imprisoned. The announcement of her imprisonment went over the Amnesty International network and went on the Web site and we announced it on CNN and on National Geographic. But she was released 24 hours later. And that’s an extraordinary record. Did the Kenyan government release her because of this work? We don’t know. But you’re never gonna know that in human rights. You always have to operate on the faith that what you’re doing might make a difference and therefore is worth doing.

MCHUGH: Kerry Kennedy Cuomo is the author of Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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